What a terrific reality-TV show this situation would have made: a gaggle of famous creative odds and sods – Carson McCullers, W H Auden, Benjamin Britten, Paul Bowles, and, to add spice, the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee – shacked up in a rickety boarding house in New York. The year is 1940–41, and the tenants, with one lavatory between them, eat, drink and argue together, trying to create art for eternity as the dogs of war fight to the death in rotten old Europe. Added attractions include walk-on parts for Salvador Dali, Leonard Bernstein and Christopher Isherwood, plus quickie commercial visits from assorted sailors, stevedores and rats from the harbour. It’s difficult to believe it really happened, but it did; and sometime during the shenanigans – with headmistress Auden in vain calling out: ‘Time, gentlemen, pull-eeze!’ – Anaïs Nin drops in and dubs the menagerie ‘February House’ because so many of the players have birthdays during that month.
The inspiration for this experiment in group living came in a dream to George Davis, a women’s-magazine fiction editor with an eye for writers that was matched only by his eye for strong young men who loitered. Sherill Tippins tells of what followed in a gossipy narrative marred only by